Mary Jacobus on Cy Twombly, “a poet in paint”

Jacobus What does it mean to call an artist “a poet in paint,” as one of Twombly’s supporters did at the outset of his career? And what does it mean to bring poetry into painting and drawing, as Twombly’s artistic practice does? In Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Mary Jacobus — a literary critic — sets out to answer these questions, showing how throughout his life, Twombly turned to poetry as a way to expand abstract painting’s reach. Jacobus recently took the time to answer some questions about Twombly’s relationship to poetry over half a century or more, and his emergence as one of the major painters of the second half of the twentieth century.

What led you to write this book in the first place?

MJ: My first encounter with the work of Cy Twombly was an early drawing that I found fascinating in its use of line. Then I became aware of the extent to which line in the form of writing—abstracted and non-referential—formed part of his work: in his early lyrical series Poems to the Sea (1959), for instance, or in later work of the 1960s ranging from the sequence Letter of Resignation (1967) to the vast “blackboard” paintings at the end of the 1960s. Quite early on, Twombly seems to have been aware of the ways in which rhythm and repetition in handwriting training (the laborious Palmer method), or shorthand annotations or mathematical equations, could become the basis for abstract signs lacking specific reference: as if they were a representation of thinking without thought-content. Twombly’s own handwriting is famously hard to read, but its illegibility becomes part of his inimitable “signature” as an artist. I was delighted that Princeton University Press put Twombly’s handwriting on the dust-jacket.

But that’s writing as formal abstraction. Many people respond to Twombly’s work for its affective charge — how it seems to speak to them directly.

MJ: You’re right. Twombly manages to make his art both cerebral and obscurely charged and personal, as if alternately suggesting and withholding traces of the thoughts and feelings that went into it. One might call him an artist of obliteration as well as writing, since he often paints out or makes hard to read, the words he has included. As a literary critic, I was fascinated by the process of deciphering the words, phrases, sentences, and quotations in his work. I suppose we all look for reference when we read, even if it’s Mallarmé experimenting with the blanks between words and phrases. Twombly famously said he wasn’t entirely an abstractionist. In the post-Abstract Expressionist era, he found a way to make art out of automatic writing that owes something to Dadaist reliance on chance and the “found” object — and perhaps also to his national service training as a cryptographer in the mid-1950s. In the book, I stress the element of secrecy in Twombly’s work that coexists with a Romantic and affective impulse, and even his use of paint — fluid and dripping, like the abstract seascapes of Hero and Leandro (1981-84) or the “pond” or “Green” paintings (1988) — as a form of erasure.

You’ve emphasized writing as such — but what are Twombly’s literary sources? What kind of poetry does he quote in his paintings?

MJ: Art critics have often noted the presence of poetic quotation — not to mention copious mythic and classical allusions — in Twombly’s work. Sometimes they have tended to assimilate him to a continuous classical tradition or to an almost omniscient (not to say “Humanist”) absorption of the literature of the past. I think it’s important to say that Twombly’s “anthology,” if you can call it that, is very much of his time. At Black Mountain College, where he spent a formative period early in the 1950s, the poetry of Rilke jostled with a distinctly Poundian emphasis (channeled through the poet Charles Olson, at that time the dominant presence) on classical poetry and fragments of archaic Greek poets like Sappho and Alkman, both favorites of Twombly’s. Olson’s “glyphomania” had a lot to do with Twombly’s interest in the written sign as such, as well as Motherwell’s promotion of automatic writing. But avant-garde poetry and poetry teaching in the first half of the twentieth century was strongly influenced by Pound’s interest in the archaic. So Twombly was being “modern” rather than nostalgic in the poetry that came to hand — poetry that came to include Mallarmé as well as Rilke, and modern Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

Did Twombly read classical or modern European poetry in the original? What was his relation to translation?

MJ: Twombly almost always uses translation, although just occasionally he quotes Rilke in German. He used translations that were very much part of his twentieth-century literary environment—by Robert Bly (Rilke) or Davenport (Archilochos) and in the case of Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis, contemporary translations or whatever he could find. For the series, Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) he used Pope’s translation of the Iliad. His library included a great many volume of poetry in translation, and you can see him editing, annotating, and selecting the passages he wanted, just as his archive includes fragmentary quotations and passages that he intended to work up as paintings or drawings. The massive painting, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (completed in 1994) reads like a compendium of poetry that Twombly returned to over many decades—Keats, Rilke, Seferis, and one surprise I won’t give away — that suggest how he used quotations to knit together a big painting and also to solve formal problems about space on the canvas.

Do you think your book will make a contribution to “image and text” studies?

MJ: Yes and no. Yes, in that Twombly himself is clearly thinking about the incommensurateness of image and text in the late series, The Rose (2008), where Rilke’s French poems accompany massive panels of multi-foliate roses. No, in that even in his artist’s-book collaboration with Paz, poem and image exist side by side in ways that express affinity without mutual interrogation. Twombly’s texts, whether scribbled or whited-out, don’t “explain” his paintings and drawings, any more than their resonant titles (Untitled is a favorite in any case). Sometimes Twombly draws on well-known narratives, for instance Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis or Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, but he often does so in mischievous or ironic ways, responding to something latent in their sexual content. His “versions” (if you can call them that) contain a kind of swerve, encrypting sexual concerns or commenting indirectly on the artist’s complicated relation to society. This is particularly the case when Twombly draws on Theocritus’s Idylls. Pastoral has always been a mode adapted to different kinds of politics, rather than a form of nostalgia for the past. What I have tried to do in “reading” Cy Twombly is to read against the grain — misread, if you like — and to suggest that on the analogy with experimental translation (which often uses visual means too), Twombly is himself a kind of neo-Dadaist translator who has no compunction about altering his sources.

You mentioned politics. What would you say is the important emphasis of your book besides its focus on the modernity of Twombly’s practice of quotation?

MJ: Twombly has often been seen as a-political, that is as focused on the mythic past rather than the present, and for some critics this has been a problem—Twombly is legitimized if he confirms to the informe but not if he seems to be a mouthpiece for a timeless Humanism. One of my concerns was to bring out the extent to which Twombly not only “outs” himself in the material he quotes and alludes to, but also the ways in which the theme of war runs through his work. His was an era that spanned the Korean War, the Cold War space race, the Vietnam War, and the first and second Gulf Wars. Twombly was always interested in archaeology. He visited archaeological sites in North Africa during his first trip to Europe and later in the Middle East—he loved the phrase “Asia Minor.” He was strongly opposed to war and visited Mesopotamian and Sumerian sites that were later damaged. He read the texts of Greek and Persian adventurism and his house at Gaeta overlooks an American naval harbor. A work like Fifty Days at Iliam coincides with the period of American reckoning with the Vietnam War and the problem of how to memorialize the war-dead. Many of Twombly’s later sculptures, and some of his paintings, are “memorial” or epitaphic works that allude to the period of the Gulf Wars and invasion of Iraq (it’s worth noting that Italy was strongly against the invasion of Iraq).

What difference do you think it made to Twombly’s art, and to the poetry he read, that he moved to Italy in the late 1950s?

MJ: That’s a very interesting question. Twombly was already familiar with the classical tradition before he arrived in Italy for the first time as a young man, with Robert Rauschenberg. Italy meant the Mediterranean, in an expanded sense that included North Africa (on that first trip) and later the Middle East. But living in Rome also oriented Twombly to Europe, even if he returned to New York each year to paint; Italy and New York had considerable links after mid-century. Perhaps one effect of the move to Rome was to cut him off from some of the New York poets of his own generation (O’Hara and Ashbery, for instance) who were keenly interested in modern art. I would say that what Twombly’s move mainly confirmed, in literary ways, was the formative influence of the European high modernists — Mallarmé and Rilke — and Mediterranean poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

To sum up, what do you think a literary critic has to offer when it comes to writing about an artist?

MJ: Obviously it depends to some extent on the artist — not to mention the literary critic. I’ve always been interested in art criticism, but one thing I learned in writing this book was that art criticism (like literary criticism) has its own disciplinary formations and protocols. So I learned a lot while writing it, including how to pay attention to the details of texture and line, paint and support, that probably are second nature to a well-trained art historian. But “Art writing,” as such, is a bit different. I deliberately end the book with Baudelaire’s essay on Delacroix (the origin of the phrase “a poet in painting”) because Baudelaire founds a modern art criticism in which the critic tries to do something that Barthes also attempts in his writing about Twombly: create a verbal translation. Art criticism needs language, it needs the literary. So I’m not simply claiming that it helps to know what Twombly’s sources were — one can certainly appreciate his work without knowing anything about his quotations — but that the exchange between literature and art, or literary criticism and art criticism, is ongoing and crucial in ways that extend beyond Twombly’s particular art practice. We can’t do without language. I see Twombly as a painter who recognizes this mutual dependence of art and writing, but at the same time his work offers something altogether more visceral and immediate: the “now” of painting and drawing as a kind of action, a way of knowing, specific to the visual artist.

Mary Jacobus is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Cambridge, England and, before that, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She has written widely on Romanticism, feminism, and visual art. Most recently, she is the author of The Poetics of Psychoanalysis and Romantic Things. Jacobus lives in Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge, UK. Her most recent book is Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.